When Handmade Festival was born in 2013, it was the same year that Summer Sundae, a well-established Leicester music festival, announced that it would not be returning to the city; with the organisers citing financial difficulties. The funding landscape looked bleak in the wake of austerity, with public money for arts and culture no longer a sustainable option as a result. And whilst the two festivals aren’t directly comparable, with a different format and an audience demographic that has at best a moderate level of crossover, what they did share was an ambition for a national music event in Leicester.
“I feel like it challenges people’s expectations of what a ‘DIY’ festival can be, and that’s more than I could ever have hoped for.”
Out of the ashes of both Summer Sundae and White Noise Festival, a smaller, DIY event which pre-dated Handmade (sharing some of the same organisers), the festival took a step towards bridging that gap. It wasn’t without the risks that come with both establishing a new ‘brand’ in a busy festival market, and without large-scale infrastructure or backing.
Today, as it approaches its sixth iteration, Handmade is one of the city’s most celebrated events. It has grown into a more extensive operation than its predecessor, White Noise, with more well-known acts, but retains a strong level of independence and continues to support new talent from the city. Handmade succeeds in being something for Leicester, whilst facing outwards. “We always wanted it to be something that presented national talent alongside the best of what Leicester was doing at any given time, and we’ve kept that ethos while the acts and audiences have slowly grown,” says John Helps, one of the festival organisers.
Arguably, it has moved away somewhat from being a DIY festival. For instance, it takes place at the O2 Academy (as well as University of Leicester Students’ Union and Attenborough Arts Centre) having moved from various bars and venues in the city centre. Recognising that shift might change the dynamic of the event, it’s something the organisers remain confident about: “It’s taken some careful pacing and some decisions that might have seemed contentious at the time but have gone on to be proven right…” explains Helps. “I feel like it challenges people’s expectations of what a ‘DIY’ festival can be, and that’s more than I could ever have hoped for.”
The festival is unique in that it hosts bands and artists across a range of genres, all broadly under an ‘alternative’ umbrella, but with considerable variation within that. It is also multi-artform – incorporating comedy, visual art and performance in addition to music. As such, the audience it attracts is varied, and holding a rigid curatorial vision for it isn’t an exact science; or even necessarily desired.
“We’ll quite often say that someone is ‘very Handmade’, but that doesn’t seem to be constrained by genre or art form or size,” says Helps. “The first year was hugely varied, pulling from different bits of the UK music scene – more through necessity than planning – and that kind of set a template that has continued. There is a common thread but it’s hard to put a finger on it, and it evolves every year as what we’re all listening to changes and the bands we’re excited about come and go.”
Keeping with that responsive, finger on the pulse approach to programming, the 2018 festival is the biggest edition yet, with over 50 artists playing over the three days. It is also, according to Helps, the “most gender diverse line-up we’ve had to date.”
In recent years, a major criticism of festivals, and rock festivals in particular, has been equal representation of women. Some of the country’s biggest music festivals, including Reading and Leeds and Download, have been (rightly) pulled up for having woeful numbers of non-male artists on their lineups. “It’s something we think is really important,” Helps continues, “and something we as a festival can actually do something about in an industry that is known for being incredibly male heavy.”
Highlights in the lineup include the politically-abrasive minimalist punks Idles, indie titans The Big Moon and Circa Waves, ‘feminist punk witches’ Dream Nails; and Peaness, the Chester trio with possibly the best band name ever, who told audiences to expect “honest sing-along indie-pop, with a bit of nervous energy between songs”.
Something that is clear about Handmade is its sense of community and camaraderie between artists, audiences and the festival team itself. For example, folk singer-songwriter and activist Grace Petrie has played every single festival. “There are certain acts, like Grace, who come back year after year and contribute so much to Handmade in ways beyond just performing,” says Helps. “It’s really pleasing to watch them slowly change and grow and have them be part of the fabric of the festival. We try not to repeat too much year on year, but there are always bands that one or more of us will be so excited about that we can’t leave them off the bill.”
One of those artists is Sam Duckworth, better known as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. He played the festival solo acoustic, under his own name, in 2015. This year, he returns under the full-band Get Cape moniker under which he has recently released a new album, Young Adults, the first since 2014. “After a while playing as Recreations, as well as solo shows, I was able to hone down elements of my sound,” says Duckworth. “It became very clear to me that there was a Get Cape “sound” of which I haven’t explored for a while. Finger style acoustic guitar, sentimental chord structures and honest lyrics.”
“Handmade is a festival, to me, of like-minded souls making all different kinds of music”
The record explores what Duckworth describes as the “new limbo” experienced by people in their late twenties, drawing on his own experiences and those of his peers. “The journey used to be school, marriage, kids and then it became school, uni, marriage, kids. Somewhere in the last ten years, due to a combination of glass ceilings and stagnation in the employment market, many people of my age have been stuck in early stages of the career ladder, whilst struggling to get on the property ladder,” he explains.
“That lack of upward mobility and security has thrown up a whole new set of challenges, with the backdrop of insecurity polluting many issues that affect those in their late twenties and early thirties. It’s interesting to see how society shifts from generation to generation, but it appears a giant pause button has been pushed.”
Speaking about his Handmade appearance, he said: “I love the festival and was really keen to come back with a band. We played at the Firebug for Independent Venue Week last year, on my birthday, and it was one of the first shows with the new band. This was the tour that made me want to bring back the Get Cape with this new line up, and it felt really fitting to bring it to Leicester.”
“Handmade is a festival, to me, of like-minded souls making all different kinds of music. The bill is incredibly eclectic, but what is guaranteed is that all the bands will be great live and decent people. Leicester has a great energy at the moment, full of creativity and thinking outside the box. This festival is a testament to the previous years; it’s quite something to pull together a line up of this quality for this ticket price.”
Thinking about the future, albeit before this year’s festival has even begun, Helps echoes this measured optimism: “Fingers crossed we’re going to keep growing, being ambitious but not over-stretching ourselves. We have a long-term plan for the first time in our history, and we hope we can become the festival Leicester deserves.”
Handmade Festival takes place at O2 Academy Leicester on the 5th and 6th May.